Science at Balticon

Balticon takes the term “Science” in its title of being a science fiction and fantasy convention very seriously. Balticon runs a complete track of 30 hours of science programming featuring world class scientists. Here is the draft schedule for the science track. Schedule is subject to change.

Friday, May 26, 2023

Friday’s Science Special Guest

Riley Black in the field

Riley Black is the award-winning author of The Last Days of the Dinosaurs, Skeleton Keys, and other fossiliferous books. When not writing about paleontology for Smithsonian, National Geographic, and other outlets, she often joins paleontologists in the field in the search for more ancient clues. How Life Rebounded From the Worst Day Ever — The asteroid impact that ended the Age of Dinosaurs changed life forever — and allowed us to exist. While the loss of dinosaurs like T. rex is sad, Black emphasizes life’s recovery and resilience in the face of overwhelming change.

2:30pm “Losing Information on Purpose or By Accident -or- Compression, Prediction, Bishops and Beethoven” Andy Love: In this talk, I’m going to discuss how information is lost or preserved by historical processes – and by deliberate processes. As examples, I’ll talk about data compression and scientific theories, redundancy in human languages, and loss of information in genealogical processes.

4pm “How Life Recovered after Earth’s Worst Day” Riley Black, Virtually in Utah, with in-person kibbitzing by Dr. Thomas Holtz: Ms. Black recounts how life rebounded and how the ecosystems drastically changed in the million years after the asteroid impact. Riley Black often joins paleontologists in the field in the search for more ancient clues. The asteroid impact that ended the Age of Dinosaurs changed life forever – and allowed us to exist. While the loss of dinosaurs like T. rex is sad, Black emphasizes life’s recovery and resilience in the face of overwhelming change.

5:30pm “Dog Diversity: The Genetics of Breed and Behavior” Emily Dutrow, Ph.D.,postdoctoral fellow at the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health in the lab of Dr. Elaine Ostrander: She studies the genetic basis of behavioral diversity among dog breeds using data collected from thousands of dogs from all over the world. Her recent research on canine behavioral genetics was published in the scientific journal Cell and was featured in The New York Times and Scientific American. She is the proud owner of a 12-year-old Chihuahua mix named Charlie.

7pm “Wood ducks: Meet Your Neighborhood Waterfowl” Pam Garrettson, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Migratory Bird Management, Branch of Assessment and Decision Support, Laurel, MD.: Wood Ducks are one of the most colorful, and widespread ducks in North America. While most ducks build nests in vegetation on the ground or over water, wood ducks nest in tree cavities, and readily use artificial nesting boxes. This means that in most areas, you don’t have to travel far to experience wood ducks. In this presentation we’ll get to know our wood duck neighbors, learning about their habitat, characteristics and behavior, so you’ll know what to look for during their breeding, wintering and migration seasons.

9:30pm “Meet the scientist social” (2 hours).

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Saturday's Science Special Guest

Stephanie Fertig head shot

Ms. Stephanie J. Fertig is the HHS Small Business Program Lead in SEED (Small business Education and Entrepreneurial Development) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She currently oversees the Health and Human Services (HHS) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, which includes the NIH SBIR and STTR programs. Prior to joining SEED, she managed the SBIR and STTR Programs at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). During her over 15 years at NIH she has led the development and implementation of multiple programs focused on small businesses and translational research.  Ms. Fertig has a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry with a major in Physics from the University of Virginia and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Maryland. 

9am “The NS SAVANNAH” Jim Ehrard, Fred Blonder, and Brent Warner. For the past 50 years NS Savannah, the only nuclear powered merchant ship, has been mothballed while the radiation level aboard her (with a half life of five years, now through ten half-lives have passed) dwindled to an almost safe level. Last November the reactor was removed here in Baltimore. For the past several months, Fred Blonder and Jim Williams have been working on a project to convert the atomic reactor and steam turbine control panel to simulated operation for demonstration purposes. Their talk will give a brief overview of the motivation for building the ship, her history and possible future, and a work-in-progress report on our work on the control panels, with discussion of the now-archaic design of the circuitry.

10am “How NIH is helping move innovation to Reality and the Market” Stephanie Fertig, MBA, HHS Small Business Program Lead at NIH:The National Institute of Health (NIH) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs, also known as America’s SEED Fund, are a key part of NIH’s mission to turn discovery into health. These programs set aside $1.2 billion every year to support small business research and development. This session will provide an overview of how NIH accelerates the conversion of future scientific discoveries into healthcare solutions, as well as highlight products supported by NIH that improve health and save lives. 

11:30am “How have humans and animals shaped urban environments and learned to live with each other?” Dawn Biehler, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at University of Maryland, Baltimore County: How do human inequalities affect urban animal ecologies? Geographer Dawn Biehler will explore the past and present of multi-species cities, and envision more sustainable, just, and healthy spaces for urban futures. She is author of the book “Pests in the City” and several articles about research on mosquitoes, housing, and environmental justice in Baltimore. Her research also addresses the challenges of making urban green spaces that support thriving for non-human animals and diverse human beings. She teaches about health and place, gender and race, climate justice, and human-animal relationships.

1pm “The Hunga Tonga—HungaHa’apai volcano eruption in the South Pacific and it’s eruption consequences” Larry Paxton, JHU-APL: On 15 January 2022 the Tonga volcano erupted. Typically, volcanoes release lava, ash, and dust as well as gases such as sulfur dioxide (SO2). This eruption was unusual in two ways: it destroyed the island that had been created by a previous eruption series and it injected enormous amounts of water into the atmosphere. I’ll share with you how we learn about the world by extending the range of human vision and how we were able to see this remarkable event. I’ll share some of the interesting effects that this event had on the near-Earth space environment. I’ll describe what we know about what created this special event and what volcanoes tell us about our planet and life. .

2:30pm“Wonderful News for Vampires—Synthetic blood (True Blood?) is being developed” Elaine Haynes, CEO of KaloCyte, leads the Baltimore-based biotech startup developing a bioinspired artificial red blood cell substitute. Why? Because every two seconds someone in the U.S. needs blood, a highly perishable, type-specific liquid dependent on an increasingly smaller donor supply. Many substitutes have been tried unsuccessfully over past centuries, including salt water, milk, beer, and even urine, leading scientists in this century to turn to the lab to develop alternatives. Come and learn about the long history of blood transfusions, and the latest cutting-edge research backed by funding from NIH, DoD, and DARPA, to develop a lifeline for when blood is not available.

4pm“Synthetic Biology: Engineering Artificial and Natural Components For Biological Factories” Panel with Jennifer Weller, National Science Foundation, and Ronald Taylor, National Cancer Institute, and Jon Dinman, U of MD College Park, Dept of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics: Synthetic Biology is the art and science of extending the biologically possible to produce results that are currently impossible to solve practical problems, such as modifying inborn errors of mutation that cause genetic diseases, driving out invasive pests using gene drives, or developing plants that can self-adjust their suite of small molecule toxins to repel emerging pathogens. However, there are plenty of wilder aims of SynBio research, including developing completely novel genetic codes, resurrecting long-dead organisms, and making novel proteins that are compatible with living organisms but have unique functional abilities.

5:30pm “Sound and Light: The Extraordinary Physics and Many Uses of the Interactions of Sound and Light” John Ashmead, whose latest paper Time dispersion in quantum electrodynamics has been accepted by the IARD conference. Light and sound have had a close relationship since the first stroke of lightning triggered the first sound of thunder. But it is only lately that science has entered the picture. From sonoluminescence (light emitted by imploding bubbles), to the use of the acousto-optic effect to use sound to control lasers, to polarons & plasmons (quantum particles which are strange hybrids of sound and light), we look at the science of sound and light as it is now — and how it might evolve in the future.

7pm “Artificial Intelligence: Myth, Fiction, and Future” Jim Beall: The talk traces AI from Talos (referring to “Jason and the Argonauts”) through “The Turk” with SF aspects like Fred Saberhagen’s Berserkers and Keith Laumer’s Bolos. I will show how the treatment of AIs changed over time until many authors simply used it as a Handwavium plot device while others used it as characters (and even protagonists). And yes, Terminator, Skynet, etc will get mentioned, as will Asimov’s 3 Laws and Heinlein’s Mike and his girls in Time Enough for Love. I will show how scientists’ views of AIs have changed, and what steps have been taken, including the Turing Test. I will also provide my own speculation, including how we have all anthropomorphized AIs and that they would doubtless not fit our preconceptions.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Sunday's Science Special Guest

Anne Simon in her office

Dr. Anne Simon, University of Maryland Plant Pathology Expert and X-Files science advisor. She was a professor at the University of Massachusetts and has been in the Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics at the University of Maryland for 22 years, receiving the highest university teaching honor at both institutions. Dr. Simon is acknowledged as one of the world’s foremost researchers on RNA viruses that infect plants, and her laboratory is currently funded by NSF, USDA-NIFA ECDRE, and MIPS through the State of Maryland. She was a recipient of the International Franski Prize for Research in Plant Virology, the Norma Allewell Prize for Entrepreneurship and in 2014 was elected a fellow of the Academy of Microbiology.

10am “Plant Pathogen Pandemic: Is this the end of citrus, chocolate and grapevines?” Anne Simon: Long living trees and vines are under unprecedented threat from pathogens. Bacteria, viruses, fungi and insects are killing billions of trees yearly, exacerbating climate change and fashioning a world that in a decade or two will be very different from the one we currently inhabit. There are no vaccines for trees and vines; no treatments or silver bullets; and plants don’t have an immune system like ours to regain their health. Because of an unusual virus-like RNA that Dr. Anne Simon stumbled upon five years ago in the giant GenBank data base could offer a potential solution to this inconceivable future. She will talk about the company that she started with her businessman brother and their race against time to develop RNA-based therapeutics for trees and vines.

11:30am “All the Mice We Cannot See: Learning from Mammalian Museum Collections” Ingrid Rochon, scientific data manager for the Smithsonian’s Division of Mammals: Why are 600,000 shrews, whales, bats, binturongs, and (of course!) mice, stored behind the scenes in the Division of Mammals? What is it like to be a librarian of not just books, field notes, and historic maps, but skins, skulls, and skeletons? This presentation will introduce you to museum specimens, their wild and wonderful stories, and how scientists use collections to understand the distribution of life on earth and pinpoint the places we have yet to explore.

1pm “Imaging the Surfaces of Distant Stars with Sub-Milliarcsec Resolution: Extending Ground-Based Interferometry into Space” Kenneth G. Carpenter, HST Operations Project Scientist, NASA/GSFC: Mission concept development work on lunar-surface and free-flying space-based interferometers, the goal is to study stellar magnetic activity and compare it to the Sun’s to enable a better understanding of the solar/stellar dynamo and activity cycles.

2:30pm “Invasive Species” Dr. Dennis Whigham, Smithsonian Institute: Two species that we have studied and published articles about:  One is a wetland species that has made big changes to Chesapeake Bay wetlands (Phragmites australis – Common Reed) and the other is a rasberry-like Asian species (Rubus phoenioclasius), known as wineberry.  Wineberry was introduced from Asia and never became a commercial species but escaped and is recognized as an invasive species in Maryland.

4pmAnnual Dinosaur Update” Dr. Thomas Holtz, Principal Lecturer, Vertebrate Paleontology, Dept. of Geology, University of Maryland.

5:30pm“Fairy Castles & Regoliths: Why Jupiter’s Trojans have 2 different colors and what the NASA LUCY Mission Could Find”  Carey Lisse: We use the results of the New Horizons mission flyby of small KBO Arrokoth to help us interpret the nature of the Jovian Trojan asteroids, similar sized objects contained in two resonant orbital clouds, +/- 60 degrees in front of/behind Jupiter on its orbit). Specifically, we show how the information learned about the icy material making up Arrokoth and its fellow KBOs and Centaur bodies can help us explain why the Trojans have no water ice on their surface, two main reddish color groupings, and seem to have fairy castles on their surface. Our thermophysical model makes clear predictions for what the  NASA LUCY mission should find in its upcoming flyby of 6 Trojans over the next decade.

7pm “Is Earth habitable? ARE YOU SURE?” Tim Livengood: One of the biggest goals in astronomy is to find out if there are other Earths out there: worlds where life COULD be, worlds where life actually is, worlds where life may be building stuff. Our plan: (1) find planets; (2) determine whether it is plausible for them to be habitable; (3) determine whether they actually are habitable; (4) determine whether they actually are inhabited. We are succeeding at steps 1 and 2, but problems crop up at step 3 and beyond. What distinguishes a habitable planet? In 2008 and 2009, we performed an experiment with the Deep Impact spacecraft to observe Earth as a model for exoplanets, to test our notions for how to tell what a planet is like when all you see is a dot in the sky. The prospects are challenging — but not hopeless.

8:30pm “Re-Introducing The Human Space Program” Greg Barr, former Administrator of the L5 Society and Deputy Executive Director of the National Space Society: He will introduce you to a recently formed nonprofit organization called The Human Space Program, Inc. (HSP) It was founded to implement an idea by author Frank White (The Overview Effect) to create a citizen-authored Blueprint for Large Scale Space Migration. You can find additional details at

9:30pm “Future of Space discussion” Carey Lisse and Greg Barr, moderators. Audience participation requested. No streaming video; comments will not be recorded so audience comments will stay in the room.

Monday, May 29, 2023

Monday's Science Special Guest

Marc Postman head shot

Dr. Marc Postman is a Distinguished Astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute and is currently the Interim Deputy Director of the institute. His primary research interest has been the formation and evolution of structure in the universe, from galaxies to the largest superclusters. Dr. Postman leads an international team of researchers to conduct a 525-orbit survey with the Hubble telescope to study dark matter in galaxy clusters and to detect some of the most distant galaxies in the universe. Recently, he has worked closely with the New Horizons team to make new measurements to understand just how dark space truly is from a unique vantage point more than 50 times the Earth’s distance from the Sun.

10am “How Dark is Space? – Observing the Universe at Ultra Faint Limits” Dr. Marc Postman, Distinguished Astronomer, Space Telescope Science Institute: Learn how observing the universe at the faintest levels with telescopes both near and far, and especially from the New Horizons Probe now more than 55 times farther from the Sun than the Earth, reveals a new mystery about the history of star formation over cosmic time.

11:30am “Pack Your Bags, We’re Going to Gateway!” Adeena Mignogna, Mission Architect, Northrop Grumman: NASA’s new space station, the lunar Gateway, will be a staging point for astronauts going to the Moon and beyond. It starts with Northrop Grumman’s Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO). Learn what it will be like to live and work in humanity’s first permanent home away from Earth!”

1pm “Dinosaurs (and other Mesozoic Reptiles) in Science Fiction” Dr. Thomas Holtz, University of Maryland, Dept of Geology: Since the 19th Century, dinosaurs (and their saurian cousins, such as pterosaurs, plesiosaurs, and so forth) have appeared in science fiction stories in all forms of media. Dr. Holtz looks at the many different ways that authors have used to bring dinosaurs and human protagonists together, and comments on how likely those might be in the real world.

2:30pm “Gerbils in Space” Dr. Karen (Purcell) .  Gerbils are great pets, but have also been instrumental in advancing science, particularly science regarding the effects of space on mammals. Time in weightlessness causes measurable changes in bone density and other metabolic functions.  Let me show you how gerbils are advancing science.